Behavioral and Emotional Disorders in Special Education

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Behavioral and emotional disorders fall under the rubric of "Emotional Disturbance," "Emotional Support," "Severely Emotionally Challenged," or other state designations. "Emotional Disturbance" is the descriptive designation for behavioral and emotional disorders in the Federal Law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Emotional disturbances are those that occur over an extended period and prevent children from succeeding educationally or socially in a school setting. They are characterized by one or more of the following:

  • An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors.
  • An inability to create or sustain reciprocal relationships with peers and teachers.
  • Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings in typical situations or environments.
  • A pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.
  • Frequent occurrences of physical symptoms or fears attached to personal or school problems.

Children who are given an "ED" diagnosis often receive special education support while participating in general education. Many, however, are placed in self-contained programs to gain the behavioral, social and emotional skills and learn strategies that will help them succeed in general education settings. Unfortunately, many children with diagnoses of Emotional Disturbance are put into special programs to remove them from local schools that have failed to address their needs.

Behavioral Disabilities

Behavioral disabilities are those that cannot be attributed to psychiatric disorders such as major depression, schizophrenia, or developmental disorders such as Autism Spectrum Disorders. Behavioral disabilities are identified in children whose behavior prevents them from functioning successfully in educational settings, putting either themselves or their peers in danger, and preventing them from participating fully in the general education program. The Behavioral Disabilities fall into two categories:

Conduct Disorders: Of the two behavioral designations, Conduct Disorder is the more severe.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV-TR, Conduct Disorder:

The essential feature of conduct disorder is a repetitive and persistent pattern of behavior in which the basic rights of others or major age-appropriate societal norms or rules are violated.

Children with conduct disorders often are placed in self-contained classrooms or special programs until they have improved enough to return to general education classes. Children with conduct disorders are aggressive, hurting other students. They ignore or defy conventional behavioral expectations, and frequently

Oppositional Defiant Disorder Less serious, and less aggressive than a conduct disorder, children with oppositional defiance disorder still tend to be negative, argumentative and defiant. Children with oppositional defiance are not aggressive, violent or destructive, as are children with conduct disorder, but their inability to cooperative with adults or peers often isolates them and creates serious impediments to social and academic success.

Both Conduct Disorders and Oppositional Defiant Disorder are diagnosed in children under 18. Children who are older than 18 are typically evaluated for antisocial disorder or other personality disorders.

Psychiatric Disorders

A number of psychiatric disorders also qualify students under the IDEA category of Emotional Disturbances. We need to remember that educational institutions are not equipped to "treat" mental illness, only to provide educational services. Some children are seen in pediatric psychiatric facilities (hospitals or clinics) in order to be provided medical treatment. Many children with psychiatric disorders are receiving medication. In most cases, teachers providing special education services or teachers in general education classrooms who will be teaching them are not given that information, which is confidential medical information.

Many psychiatric disorders are not diagnosed until a child is at least 18. Those psychiatric diagnoses that are under Emotional Disturbance include (but are not limited to):

  • Anxiety disorder
  • Bipolar (manic-depression) disorder
  • Eating Disorders
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
  • Psychotic Disorders

When these conditions create any of the challenges listed above, from the inability to perform academically to the frequent occurrences of physical symptoms or fears due to school problems, then these students need to receive special education services, in some cases to receive their education in a special classroom. When these psychiatric challenges occasionally create problems for the student, they may be addressed with support, accommodations and specially designed instruction (SDI's.)

When students with psychiatric disorders are placed in a self-contained classroom, they respond well to the strategies that help Behavior Disorders, including routines, positive behavior support, and individualized instruction.

Note: This article has been reviewed by our Medical Review Board and is considered medically accurate.

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Your Citation
Webster, Jerry. "Behavioral and Emotional Disorders in Special Education." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Webster, Jerry. (2020, August 27). Behavioral and Emotional Disorders in Special Education. Retrieved from Webster, Jerry. "Behavioral and Emotional Disorders in Special Education." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 11, 2021).

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